Giggling through life

And making spring rolls with love
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  December 8, 2010

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Suu Le Martin and her sister, with a fresh plate of spring rolls.

When you get Vietnamese spring roll lessons from Suu Le Martin, you learn they're basically ground pork, really thin rice noodles, carrot, salt, sugar, pepper, onion, and egg, wrapped up in special paper and deep fried. But by the time you're chomping into the crispy, hot, handheld treats, you understand she also did something else: she took sheer human love, wrapped it in courage, and glued it all together with a scramble of prayers.

In 1960, when Suu Le was 10, her parents beat her because her earnings from her night job in the rice field were too paltry. She earned 50 cents a month. Then her teacher at school beat her for not finishing her homework. When her father died of cancer when she was 14, she prayed, "My mom, six girls and a boy, how we gonna survive?"

Her family of eight lived in a one-room house with no kitchen, so she and her sister covered the floor in papers and cooked there. They made duck soup, fried rice, spring rolls, and wontons crouched like toddlers. They didn't have a sink so they used bowls of water. Suu Le quit school to get a second job. Once when the bombs and bullets got so bad, she was running in the chaos, and her mother yanked her by her waist-long black hair into a nearby church. The family hid there for three weeks. For light, they had a single candle. For food, they had one hard, hard baguette to share. There was no water, so from time to time, Suu Le ran for it carrying the long shoulder stick and two buckets hanging from strings.

By age 16, Suu Le was a 16-year-old bar waitress in Saigon. She was beautiful, the perfection of her skin belying the brutality of her young life and the war around her. One of her customers was in the US Air Force. He was really handsome. His order, "Coca Cola, please," took her by surprise — the other guys ordered the hard stuff or French beer. For a while the two flirted wordlessly. She spoke no English, and he no Vietnamese. Then one day, "He bought me a Tree Musky." (That's a Three Musketeers bar.) "I eat that candy and boy I love the guy." She giggles and laughs. It was a schoolgirl crush, without the school. She was 16. He was 22. When he didn't come back, her friends teased her: American GI? That's bullshit, forget about him!

She must have waved in their faces, three months later, the letter that came. It was from him! With a neighbor's help, she read it and wrote back. They wrote for three years. He sent $60 a month for her to take English lessons. She got them, and a high school diploma. After his tours in San Francisco, Japan, and Guam, Andrew interrupted the war for a moment when he knocked on the door of the one-room house in Saigon and entered it with a with a diamond ring. Would she pack her bags and come with him to America? She was terrified. He was terrified. They went to the embassy.

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  Topics: Food Features , Vietnam War, spring rolls, cooking,  More more >
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